There was a time when it was impossible to escape Upworthy on your Facebook feed. The progressive media curation site created by MoveOn founder Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley became expert at sharing viral content with brazen, emotional, "curiosity gap" headline style that drew enormous traffic numbers (i.e. "This Video Might Hurt To Watch. Luckily, It Might Also Explain Why"). At its peak in 2013, it reached around 50 million monthly readers, and countless other web sites copied its headline formula. It was a time of plenty in the struggling, hyper-competitive digital media business.
Such abundance was short-lived. Facebook giveth, and Facebook taketh away. As the social network made continued tweaks to the algorithm that governs what users see in their News Feeds designed to disfavor memes and clickbait, Upworthy’s traffic dropped. (Though Upworthy maintained at the time the decline wasn’t because of Facebook’s algorithm, at least not entirely.)
For what it’s worth, the Upworthy team gives a "sorry, we’re not too sorry" apology for subjecting everyone to all that annoying clickbait (though we can also thank plenty of other sites like BuzzFeed for that, too). "We sort of unleashed a monster. Sorry for that. Sorry we kind of broke the Internet last year," said co-founder Koechley in March.
Upworthy realized it needed a new direction, and, in January, it brought on Amy O’Leary from the New York Times—where she was responsible for its noteworthy Innovation Report—as its editorial director (The curiosity gap headline of the announcement: "Why This Amazing Woman Is Joining Upworthy As Our Editorial Director.") And with the site’s release of its new editorial strategy this week, it has found one: the incredibly novel, never-tried-before-on-the-web approach of...original storytelling—combined with the use of data to improve reader engagement, especially on mobile devices. "We believe that buried inside the relationship between stories and data, there is the power to change the world," Upworthy writes in a very Upworthy presentation.
O’Leary acknowledges that original storytelling has been around for millennia, and editorial departments have been deploying data "with vigor" for the last decade. But she says Upworthy is going beyond working to maximize a single metric in measuring how effective those stories are—many sites use the time reader spends on a story page—and is deploying the full force of its data savvy to optimize how stories are told on different platforms. She says it will be a bit like how Netflix used its viewer data to frame its original series House of Cards.
"Upworthy had a lot of success earlier writing headlines and testing headlines. We’re now taking that deeper into the story layer itself," O’Leary says.
As an example of storytelling formats that Upworthy is experimenting with, she cites a long, 5,000 word story that used humor to engage readers in an unsexy social justice topic. It sings the praises of the food offerings at five fast food joints while taking them down for the way they treat their workers. There were more than 65 "jokes" in the piece, says O’Leary, or a joke every 75 words (sample joke: "BEHOLD! The mighty bacon cheeseburger toaster! Gaze ye upon it in all its glory!"). "How do you get millions of people to care about worker wages on a phone?" she asks. "We didn’t set out with that piece with ‘we’re going to do a big 5,000 word investigation on worker wages.' That’s not going to travel as widely."
It all sounds well and good, and Upworthy says it’s having some success at reinventing itself. With an editorial team of 30, it’s still receiving about 20 million unique visitors a month, which isn't anything to shrug at in the Internet media business. But is Upworthy going to take the Internet by storm again? That’s a lot harder the second time around.
Says O’Leary: "If we’re chasing algorithmic changes [on Facebook] for short-term traffic gains, you can do that, but I don’t think it’s a long-term strategy. ... I’m interested in building an Upworthy that’s going to be around for a very long time."